Fashion and shopping, Melbourne style


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What is Elegance?

Lift that chin! Taken in Sep 2008, this picture has a little spirit of vintage elegance about it. 1950s vintage headpiece, Veronika Maine top.I have been pondering this question for a long time: what is elegance? The answer could fill a book (and has), but I shall try to be briefer, although I’d like to consider these three concepts: elegance, style, fashion; and elegance as it pertains to aspects of ourselves other than our attire.

Is elegance different to style, to being fashionable?

Of course. When I was a teen, I did not understand elegance, per se, and I did not have my own style. I merely wore what was in fashion. In my early twenties, when I went to art school, I really started developing my own style – inspired by like-minded people; my studies; and the creative, eclectic district of my school. I don’t know when I started to think about elegance. Perhaps it was something I absorbed during my childhood, observing my older sisters; or perhaps it was in response to my various environments, and the behaviours of the people around me as I matured.

‘Elegance is refusal’, said Coco Chanel.

I am certain that something changed when my own style evolved in my late twenties: I moved on from the arty, ‘boho’ (how I loathe that word) look that was a relic of art school, to a type of minimalism that was yet not too Puritan. I wore simple, clean shapes but chose interesting fabrics, colours and textures.

Coco Chanel, 1936. Ph: Lipnitzki‘Elegance is refusal’, said Coco Chanel. She also advised us to look in the mirror and take one thing off before we left the house. (Going by what some people wear on the streets these days I suspect they don’t look in the mirror at all!)

The OED defines the word elegant as ‘graceful and stylish in appearance or manner’; style as ‘a particular way … procedure by which something is done; a distinctive appearance’ etc; and fashion as ‘a popular, or the latest style of clothing, hair, decoration or behaviour’.

The word ‘graceful’ is an important one: graceful in manner, in movement, in speech. When I think of elegance, I often picture women of the 1930–1950s. Not only historical photographs and films of the period (just take a look at Audrey Hepburn) but modern films set in these times, such as Gosford Park*. Why this period? Surely they don’t have a monopoly on elegance?

(Left) Two 1930s women dressed for a garden party. Ph: Alfred Eisenstaedt. Image from not, but they did believe strongly in good manners. I don’t think you can ever be truly elegant if you are vulgar and rude to the people around you. Not the most beautiful face or careful dressing will hide bitchiness, selfishness, and all kinds of unattractive character traits forever. You will be remembered however – no matter how plain – if you are gracious, kind, a good listener … and ‘sugar and spice, and all other things nice’!

The other thing about these elegant women of the early half of the twentieth century was posture. They stood tall – or as tall as they could. This is one of the easiest and cheapest ways to achieve a little elegance: stand up straight and your clothes – no matter their origin – will hang better, and your figure will be remarkably improved. Hold your head high – yet not so high that you look unapproachable. I once received the loveliest compliment from a man: “There was something in the way you walked, the way you carried yourself – whenever we were meeting I loved to watch your arrival.” How extraordinary I felt to hear that!

Hold your head high – yet not so high that you look unapproachable.

One of my all-time favourite fashion images. ‘Charles James Gowns, Vogue, June 1948′ Ph: Cecil BeatonIt did help that many of these women (the upper class lasses) went to finishing, or deportment schools. Nowadays we have to rely on old movies, and books – or, if we’re lucky – our families, friends and mentors who set an excellent example.

Here’s an inspiring excerpt from How to be Lovely: The Audrey Hepburn Way of Life (Melissa Hellstern) to read before you click and buy. Some other books on the subject: The Penguin Book of Etiquette: The Complete Australian Guide to Modern Manners (Marion Von Adlerstein); Manners (Kate Spade); Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behaviour, Freshly Updated (Judith Martin).

Next time on Sit Like A Lady, I’ll tackle the extremely important subject of CLOTHES!

(Left) Wenda Rogerson, Vogue 1951. Ph: Norman Parkinson. (Right) Audrey Hepburn. Ph: unknown.*Please note I do not advocate their mean-spirited behaviour!


The Extraordinary Evolution of a Couturier

Today I started off writing quite a serious dissertation about the frivolous (or not) obsession with fashion today’s society has… but then I realised that was hardly a fair introduction to a master of lightness and joie de vivre.

Yves Saint Laurent was a man who loved to create beautiful garments, and you will see this nowhere so well as in the two documentaries Yves Saint Laurent: His Life and Times, and 5 Avenue Marceau.

The first biographical film is a capsule of his career, beginning with his astonishing debut and following his meteoric rise to becoming one of last century’s most influential couturiers. It is not just a film about fashion, but really a historical document, featuring extensive interviews with the designer.

But for me, 5 Avenue Marceau was truly an ode to the beauty of fashion and the passion that goes into its creation. It opens with the intimate scene of a fitting with Catherine Deneuve which I found fascinating (including an amusing conversation about the disgusting habits of foxes and murder most fowl); but what comes after is even more so.

To say that the film is a behind-the-scene glimpse of the creation of Saint Laurent’s final spring line is to belittle the intimate view we are privileged to. We are witness to an extraordinary evolution, from fashion sketch to finished garment. Saint Laurent collaborates closely with his staff, whom we see cutting and sewing, before fitting models whom they bring before ‘monsieur’ to parade the toiles to be critiqued; for final fabrics and accessories to be chosen. He is always gracious whether offering fairly considered criticism or unstinting praise, and it is obvious how highly his staff respect him. I only wish there had been more footage of the final runway show.

Kenneth Turan, of the Los Angeles Times said, “A timeless portrait of an artist at work… A celebration of human endeavour.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Buy the DVD here.


Qui a vu Coco dans l'Trocadéro

A film about a fashion designer? I’m there! … So the weekend saw me at a cinema, and I saw Coco Avant Chanel.

I didn’t know a great deal about Chanel’s history prior to her fame as a fashion designer, so the film was interesting as a biography of her early years. Of course, the filmmakers play fast and loose with the facts as they all tend to, but certainly Chanel did herself, so that is quite apt. But it’s quite true that she earned her nickname from a song that she sang as a cabaret dancer, about a little dog called Coco.

Although there is not a great deal depicted of her evolution as a fashion designer throughout the film, there are many lovely touches that hint at the revolutionary ideas Chanel was forming about the female figure. But the small glimpses one has of her atelier; of Coco cutting fabric and fashioning hats; of models wandering around in magical garments… they all left me hungry for more!

Fortunately there is another film about Chanel due for release at the end of the year, I read in an interesting article on the Telegraph’s website.

In the meantime, go and enjoy the beautiful cinematography and art direction (not to mention the costumes), and the charm of Audrey Tatou as Coco Chanel.


Bad-hair saviours

I hardly need state that everyone has a bad hair-day every now and then.

Traditionally, this implies unruly, recalcitrant hair that defies every attempt to control its appearance whilst unfettered.

In my case the problem is that my hair is too fine and flyaway. And because it is so long, I have a lot of new growth that often creates an unsightly halo when I am after a smooth sleek finish.

Sometimes it is simply a case of bad-morning, not bad-hair, when I have zero minutes to spend on its appearance. This is when my hair accessories really come into their own, and the importance of quality cannot be overstated.

It [the ibis clip] has never let me down – and my hair has never tumbled down unless I fully intended it to.

Years ago I discovered the joys of French hairclips over Chinese imports. There is simply no comparison. The springs in the Paris Mode clips are steel, and they do not snap open at some ill-timed moment. Ditto the ibis clip. It has never let me down – and my hair has never tumbled down unless I fully intended it to.

And the tortoise-shelled hair comb is virtually indestructible, unlike the inferior Lady Jayne version I owned prior to my epiphany. That quickly became gap-toothed as an old lady rocking back in a nursing home. I can bundle my damp hair up in a French roll and secure it with the comb so easily, and when I shake it out – like an advertisement – what a riot of curls!

Of course, there is a pretty price to pay for quality, and it may make you gasp at first. But it will definitely be worth it.

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